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Issues of the Environment: Huron River Day celebration comes amid contamination threats and challenges

Rebecca Esselman
Huron River Watershed Council
Rebecca Esselman


  • Huron River Day started 43 years ago as a celebration of the Huron River and its benefits to the surrounding areas. On May 21st, starting at noon, community members can rent discounted boats, listen to live music, and go fishing. 
  • The event at Gallup Park in Ann Arbor will have live animal demonstrations from the Leslie Science & Nature Center, food trucks, water squirting lessons from Dirt Doctor, the Huron-Clinton Metroparks mobile learning center and exhibits from local organizations. Paddle boats and kayaks can be rented from the canoe livery for $5. Rentals are free for those who ride their bikes to the festivities. Natural Area Preservation will offer 30-minute nature walks at noon, 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.a2gov.org/departments/Parks-Recreation/play/pages/huron-river-day.aspx)
  • Ahead of the summer recreation season, Rebecca Esselman, Executive Director at the Huron River Watershed Council, would like the public to know that the river is open and safe for recreation. There are no pollutants in the Huron River that pose a danger for swimming, tubing, kayaking, and other activities where people can get drenched. 
  • In 2022, wastewater containing hexavalent chromium was discharged from Tribar Manufacturing to the Wixom Sewage Treatment Facility, and most river recreation at the Huron River Watershed was temporarily suspended. Fortunately, further testing revealed that most of the polluted wastewater never reached the river at all, and it was not detected in subsequent tests. Monitoring continues, and the river is currently safe. A coalition of environmental and justice groups have penned an open letter to the CEOs of Ford Motor Company, Toyota, General Motors, Stellantis, and Rivian, calling on them to “immediately cease doing business with, or utilizing parts from any supplier using hexavalent chromium, including Tribar.”
  • In addition to being safe for recreation, portions of the “Do Not Eat” fish advisory for the Huron River were updated in 2022. The advisory is lifted for the stretch of the Huron River from where it crosses I-275 in Wayne County to the river mouth at Lake Erie, including the Flat Rock impoundment. Most of the Huron River Watershed still falls under the advisory due to PFAS (also chiefly attributed to improper release by Tribar Manufacturing), and eating fish caught there isn’t advisable. A study conducted by the Ecology Center, Friends of the Rouge, Huron River Watershed and six local anglers recently found PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in every fish caught and tested. PFAS are a cancer-causing class of toxic chemicals. They are used to make water- and stain-resistant products and are found in things like cleaning products, fabric and fire-fighting foam. PFAS are dangerous for watersheds and wildlife because they are non-biodegradable.(Sources: *portions directly quoted* https://www.michigan.gov/pfasresponse/about/news/2022/05/02/michigan-releases-2022-eat-safe-fish-guides; https://wdet.org/2023/03/07/new-study-shows-all-fish-tested-from-huron-and-rouge-rivers-have-pfas/)
  • In early 2023, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed updating the limits for PFAS in drinking water, and that legislation could have a regulatory trickle-down effect for manufacturing, which is currently able to withhold information from the public about the use/production of PFAS due to “trade secret” protections.  [In March of 2023], the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its first-ever legal standard for two PFAS “forever chemicals” -- PFOS and PFOA -- proposing a limit of no more than 4 parts per trillion (ppt) for each chemical in drinking water. (Source: https://www.sierraclub.org/michigan/blog/2023/03/epa-releases-new-pfos-and-pfoa-drinking-water-standards-extending-2020-era


David Fair: The annual celebration of the Huron River--it's right around the corner. I'm David Fair, and welcome to this week's edition of 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment. Huron River Day is going to be held at Gallup Park in Ann Arbor, Sunday, May 21st. There's going to be all kinds of family-friendly activities. The Huron River, of course, is a vital natural resource, and, over the past few years, has faced more than its share of challenges. How healthy is the river? And what does its future look like? Well, because of the expertise of our guest, we're going to find out together. Rebecca Esselman is executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council. And it's always good to talk with you, Rebecca.

Rebecca Esselman: Nice talking with you, too, David.

David Fair: We'll dive into the specific challenges the river has and is facing in a moment. But, overall, I sense you're rather pleased with the health of the river because you've emphasized the river is open and safe for recreation. So, is that a fair statement?

Rebecca Esselman: That is a fair statement. We certainly recommend a few precautions because of PFAS contamination in our river. But, for recreation, the river is safe.

David Fair: Well, last year, there was a true threat and scare. A Wixom-based company named Tribar Manufacturing discharged wastewater containing hexavalent chromium to the Wixom wastewater treatment plant. And that chemical, of course, is a known carcinogen. And for a period, most or all recreational activities in the Huron River Watershed were suspended. Did the chemical ever actually make it into the river itself?

Rebecca Esselman: It's a great question, David. I appreciate you asking it, because, yes, in fact, the river from about Wixom Road to Kent Lake was closed for a couple of weeks last August, and that was because officials were investigating just how much, if any, of that hexavalent chromium had made it to the river. This could have been a pretty horrific ecological and human health disaster should that have happened.

David Fair: Yeah. Thank Erin Brockovich, right?

Rebecca Esselman: Yes, exactly. But we were very fortunate that the contaminant was released to the sewage treatment facility and all of it was captured there. It did not make it to the river. So, once the investigations were complete, you know, the recommendation to avoid the river was lifted, and it's been opened since. So, this was a case where the containment of concern did not actually reach the river.

David Fair: Nonetheless, it brought up the fact that it could happen at any time without further efforts to prevent it. So, after that incidents, environmental advocacy groups asked auto manufacturers to stop doing business with Tribar and other companies that use hexavalent chromium in an effort to protect the health of our waters. To your knowledge, did that effort get anywhere?

Rebecca Esselman: There were some verbal commitments made by the automotive industry to phase out the use of hexavalent chromium over time. I don't know how quickly any of that is moving forward. I will say, at both the federal and state level, there is additional effort into addressing issues of contaminants being used in manufacturing and for other purposes being released into our environment in, you know, our soil, air and water. And so, there are events like we experienced in the Huron with the release of PFAS chemicals in 2018 and the scare around hexavalent chromium last year really has Michigan residents and legislators mobilized to take actions and to make legislative and regulatory changes that ensure we have stronger precautions in place, so that these events don't happen in the first place and that we have more muscle behind our ability to conduct cleanups, require cleanups, to a very high level, should a contamination event occur or to deal with our thousands of legacy sites that we currently have in Michigan.

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and our Issues are the Environment conversation with Rebecca Esselman continues. Rebecca is the executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council, and you mentioned the PFAS contamination back a couple of years ago. And, again, that comes down to Tribar Manufacturing. These forever chemicals are known to cause cancer and other illness and certainly pose a danger when we come in contact with or ingest them. Now, we were advised to limit contact with the water in the Huron River to absolutely avoid any of the foam the river generated and a "do not eat fish" advisory was put in place for the entire span of the Huron River. Where are we on all of that?

Rebecca Esselman: Sure. I'd like to clarify something you said there. So, ingestion and skin contact with water that may have levels of PFAS in it is not where we are concerned about health risk. Health risk with PFAS comes into play when you have repeated exposure over time. So, this is why we say swimming, boating, recreation along those lines in the river is still safe. What we want to avoid is repeated exposure, and that is where the "do not eat fish" advisory comes in, because unfortunately, those PFAS have ended up in our fish. And if you consume Huron River fish over time, you are increasing the health risks associated with PFAS exposure. You also mentioned the foam. I think that that's an important thing for river recreators to be aware of. So, PFAS tend to concentrate in foam. Not all foam on the river is PFAS-related foam. Actually, foam occurs pretty naturally as a part of a process of a river's natural function. But we also know that PFAS can create and concentrate in foam on the river. So, we just recommend, since it's not easy with the visible eye to identify which foam has PFAS and which doesn't, to just avoid foam when you see it. If you come in contact with it, we just recommend that you rinse off with non-foamy water, and then wash up when you get home.

David Fair: Now PFAS are called "forever chemicals" for a reason. They simply don't break down. Might we envision a time where we are able to eat fish again that is caught in the Huron River?

Rebecca Esselman: That's a good question. And it's one with an evolving answer, David. Listeners may have heard recently that the EPA released draft drinking water standards around several PFAS this winter. And what we're learning, the more we learn about this chemical is that, you know, the threshold for safety is decreasing. We're actually learning that there's essentially no safe level. And so, we expect that health departments over time will be, you know, considering the implications of that new science for fish consumption recommendations. We haven't seen anything new yet. You know, what we recommend is that, you know, follow Michigan's eat safe fish guidelines and just keep your eyes open for any revisions to those guidelines as the state brings the science to bear on our guidance.

David Fair: We're talking with Huron River Watershed Council's Rebecca Esselman on WEMU's Issues of the Environment. I do want to get to the happier note, and that is the celebration of the Huron River. It is open for recreation, as you mentioned, safe to swim in and kayak on and canoe on. The celebration of this amazing natural resource takes place this Sunday, May 21st. What are you most looking forward to on Huron River Day?

Rebecca Esselman: Huron River Day is a really fun family event. I just love seeing all the people in the activity and folks gathering for that purpose of celebrating the river. It's actually an event that's been happening for 43 years, if you can believe it. It's an annual event right there in Gallup Park. It's hosted by the Huron River Watershed Council, the City of Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner's Office is involved. And I did want to give a quick nod to our DTE Energy Foundation as our foundation partner on this. And they've been supporting the event for for several years as well. And it's just a great day. You know, the weather outlook looks great, and there are children activities there. There's lots of exhibits and opportunities to learn about the river. HRWC is always present. There's food trucks, there's live music, and there's really low-cost boat rentals. So, you can actually get yourself on the water. It's a great opportunity if you're not familiar with paddling, to take a pretty easy paddle around the pond there. It's slow-moving water. It's a pretty safe environment to try on paddling. So, for $5, you can get yourself a kayak or a canoe. And I'll add that if you bike into the event, they actually give you a free rental. So, you get a free kayak or canoe if you bike in.

David Fair: What a great way to spend a day and celebrate the Huron River and all that it means to the community. And if you don't know about it, it's a way to learn about it. How will the Huron River Watershed Council be spending the rest of its summer? What are you going to be working on?

Rebecca Esselman: Well, as we speak, we are onboarding a group of about ten interns. We bring on a group of young people every year who are interested in learning more about science and river protection. And they spread out throughout our watershed over the course of the entire summer and collect critical data that really helps us inform our work and understand where conditions are improving on the river, where they might be declining. There are eyes and ears that can help us identify problems that we might not otherwise know about. So, it's a really fun target time of the year, where a lot of us get out from behind our desks and our computers and get out to the water. And do, you know, the aspects of this work that we really, truly love and drew us to the environmental field in the first place. So, that's what I'm looking forward to.

David Fair: It looks to be a great summer ahead. Huron River Day at Gallup Park is in Ann Arbor this Sunday from noon to four with a wide variety of activities and educational opportunities. Hope you enjoy the festivities, Rebecca, and thank you so much for the time today.

Rebecca Esselman: Thank you, David.

David Fair: That is Rebecca Esselman. She's executive director of the Huron River Watershed Council and our guest on Issues of the Environment. This weekly feature is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. And to find out more about today's conversation and Huron River Day, visit our website at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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